By not marrying, Elizabeth I threw into question her succession. Elizabeth was intelligent enough to realise that other nations had faced huge problems when there was a succession crisis or when there were even doubts as to who a monarch’s true successor should be. This was an issue that undoubtedly caused concern in both the Privy Council and Parliament.
In terms of blood relations, the nearest legal successor to Elizabeth on her death was Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots). To many in her Privy Council this was simply unacceptable – yet legality was on Mary’s side and Elizabeth was very aware of this. Mary was a Catholic while the Religious Settlement had made England Protestant. Mary had also been married to the King of France, and though widowed, she still had many friends in France despite returning to Scotland on the death of her husband, Francis. While in Scotland, Mary married men who were eminently unsuitable to Elizabeth’s advisors. Lord Darnley was a drunk who, himself, was implicated in the murder of Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio. Darnley died in mysterious circumstances at Kirk O’Field’s. Many in London simply assumed that Mary was somehow involved in his death. Her next husband, Bothwell, was viewed as an equally unwise choice – something the people of Scotland agreed with. Mary had to flee Scotland and sought sanctuary in England in 1568.
Elizabeth’s advisors could not view Mary as a successor to Elizabeth. Even when her religion was put to one side, influential men such as William Cecil questioned her decision-making. Here was someone who had clearly married the wrong people – what would she do as Queen of England?
To begin with, Elizabeth did not share the concerns of her Privy Council. Elizabeth never denied that Mary was her true legal successor – though she never openly named her. However, Mary’s simple association with the death of Darnley – which was never proved – was enough for Elizabeth to start questioning whether Mary, though the legal successor, was the right person to succeed her. At the very least, the Privy Council questioned Mary’s ability to make the correct decisions, and it seems that after a while, Elizabeth shared the concerns of her councillors. If Mary had made the wrong decisions in Scotland, would she do the same in England and with what results?
As Elizabeth’s reign moved on and it seemed very likely that she would not marry and provide an heir, so her advisors became more and more worried about her successor. The interpretation of what occurred next depends on whose viewpoint is more persuasive.
Between 1585 and 1587, Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s highly gifted spymaster, gathered enough information on Mary to put her on trial for plotting to murder Elizabeth. It may well be the case that Mary did plot against Elizabeth – she was, after all, found guilty of this crime and executed as a result. However, there were those, especially in Catholic Europe, who believed that all the evidence against Mary had been either fabricated or extracted by the use of torture – as in the case of Anthony Babington. They believed that the likes of Cecil wanted Mary removed at all costs so that the whole issue of succession became an irrelevance. If Mary was dead, the next legal heir to the throne would have been her son, James, who was a Protestant. Even as Mary was being put on trial, Parliament and the Privy Council worked out a way of protecting James in the event of his mother’s execution:
“We the lords and others of her majesty’s said Privy Council whose names are underwritten do manifest and declare that we had no intention in any wise to prejudice the noble Prince James the Sixth, now King of Scots, in anything that might touch and concern him in house or blood, but to leave him in such and the same state as he should or might have been if the same sentence and judgement had not been had or given, and in no other.”
For his part, James made only a token protest at his mother’s execution. Elizabeth did not formally name him as her successor but she did not allow anyone to speak ill of him. It was only towards the end of her life that Elizabeth named him as successor:
“I will that a king succeed me and who but my kinsman the king of Scots.”